Cotton On, porn isn’t acceptable

Published in the Courier Mail 18 Jan 2012

By Ruth Limkin

Australian students gained a brand new case study on business ethics and public relations last week. Typo, the stationery store owned by Cotton On, had a back to school sale but customers looking for school stationery were also confronted with a “Porn is my Saviour” travel mug. Typo also had an A4 notebook with a photo of a naked woman, headed “Dirty” in large capitals, and with a subtitle that proclaimed ‘entertainment for men’. The Cotton On website declared it a notebook for the quintessential student.

Furious customers contacted the company for days on their Facebook page and by email, and started an online petition against the range. Typo remained silent for three days. Finally, they started replying to some comments on facebook, defending the products as being marketed to university /college aged students and ‘never intended for children’.

The consumer backlash continued yet it wasn’t until late Friday afternoon that Cotton On released a general public statement. After confirming the voluntarily withdrawal of the products in question, the statement said, “…Typo is reviewing its buying and merchandising policies in order to be more sensitive to the fact that children may be present in our stores. Parents should be aware that our products will still be designed with a young adult audience in mind.”

Clearly, someone at Cotton On headquarters missed the point.

Display this material in the workplace and it would constitute sexual harassment, so why they deemed it appropriate for a workplace that’s also a retail space is interesting. But leaving that aside, what kind of lessons are Cotton On giving to the young adults it aimed these products at? What is Typo teaching the ‘quintessential’ student?

The first lesson they’re teaching is that it’s appropriate to label women as dirty. Just to clarify, it’s not. And for the record, it’s not okay to label men like that either.

Their second lesson is that women are ‘entertainment for men’. This dehumanizes women, reducing them to little more than objects for men’s sexual titillation. Gone is any notion of  respect for female personhood. I shudder at the corporate culture which seems to condone such overt disrespect for their female staff and customers.

The third lesson they’re teaching is that porn should be mainstream. Yet just last week, Victoria’s Child Safety Commissioner lamented the damage that mainstreamed porn is doing to our children’s sexuality, observing that ‘the adult world is pushing this information at children much more vehemently than they ever did before’.

Fourthly, they’re teaching that profit is king. Forget any sense of corporate responsibility or social ethics. If you can make money, even if it’s from the sexual exploitation of women, then that’s all that matters. Yet women and girls are not for entertainment, and any company which profits by promoting that idea should be ashamed of themselves.

None of these are lessons that we’d want our society’s future leaders to learn.

We want them to learn that people are inherently valuable, and that women are capable, intelligent and worthy of respect. We want them to learn that the hyper-sexualisation of culture is damaging and that profit is not the final arbiter of right. Perhaps most importantly, we want them to learn that when men and women see an injustice, they should speak out against it and refuse to stay silent. That final lesson rests with us. May we teach it well.

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ruth@ruthlimkin

19 thoughts on “Cotton On, porn isn’t acceptable

  1. They also have stamps that say F**k, WTF and other words like that, that may offend people as well.
    If its for the University, TAFE or college students then great, they can shop there.
    Maybe if you are looking for kids stationery stick to Smiggle, KMart, Target and BigW at least we (parents) know that they don’t stock “adult” stationery. 🙂

    1. Hi Jessica – I think the issue is that it’s sending a completely inappropriate message about women. I don’t love some of the products you’ve described either, but I don’t agree that it’s ‘great’ that uni students should be encouraged to buy products reinforcing women as ‘entertainment’. Maybe we need to agree to disagree?

  2. I would be interested to know whether Typo will now display signs on their shop window warning parents that their shop may contain material that is unsuitable for children to view.

    I am guessing not!

  3. Ruth, excellent article (again!!) Your points are relevant and on target.

    Thinking of the ‘sexual harrassment’ aspect, if these products were to be displayed in a workplace (& I believe it is illegal to display porn images at worksites now), why then would they be acceptable for students to use and display, say, on their desk in a school or university setting? Those schools that the students attend are the workplace of teachers and other school staff. Secondly, our young people are being educated not just in their ‘ABC’ & ‘123’ while they are at school. Rather, a big part of their education is socialisation and getting on with other human beings in an educational/work environment. All of which means it’s ludicrous to suggest (by selling these products as part of stationery supplies) that its ok to have notebooks with piccies of naked women on the cover that could be left in places at school where others can see them!!

    As a father with teen aged daughters, I don’t want this rubbish on display and I don’t want them to have to contend with a ‘pornified society’ where the idea of women being submissive little playmates for men is prevalent.

    As a father with a teen aged son, I don’t want him to get the idea that women are playthings either.

    Thanks for your writing on these issues.

    Regards, Dave

  4. in Australia and internationally we have a thriving pornographic industry, thriving sexual and human trafficing trades, and we choose to bring down a stationary store for making mugs and postage stamps? We only fight for the fights that are small enough to win. I agree that displaying these producs in an environment that may appeal to children is not appropriate, but neither is it right for children to have unrestricted access to internet and violent games, how so can we fabricate standards with regards to whats appropriate to appear on stationary? that comes down to parental responsibility and our own values. As for the devaluation of women, i think we’re kidding ourselves to treat these products as the critical issue in our society. Turn your eyes to every second advertisement and movie and observe the deteriorating quality of our values. The sanctity of sex has been and continues to be wronged in far greater ways than the products in question.

    1. Hi Tim – you’re so right, the thriving pornography and sexual trafficking trades are abhorrent. If you get the chance to look around breadandjustice.com then you’ll see I have written often about these very issues. I don’t believe that the issues of culture expressed in advertising, movies, etc are completely separate to the mainstreaming of a mindset that treats women as ‘entertainment’, and wrote about this here: https://breadandjustice.com/2011/12/10/why-are-you-doing-this/

      I think that we have to challenge things that can seem small because they’re part of a bigger picture. However, I also respect that you may operate differently, and perhaps you focus on the big fights. I really do applaud whatever you’re doing to help fight the human trafficking industry. It’s evil indeed. Keep up the great work!

  5. I have a couple things to say from a male point of view, firstly, if you don’t like the product, don’t buy it, I hardly see how a silhouette on a bookcanbe seen as offensive givin the unavoidable bombardment of barely dressed teenagers you had to walk past to arrive at typo. Secondly we need to accept that not all women think alike, some women chose to seek the attention of men through dressing provocitavly, and some don’t, neither woman is wrong, and both women have suiters out there looking for some one just like them. And lastly, high schoolers and uni goers are not going to learn of this term ” porn” from note book cover, it is a fact of life that it exists, and from the age of 13 or earlier every male is aware and capable of accessing porn, if he so wishes. So basically I say, go ahead Typo, if sex sells, then sell it.

    1. Hi Peter
      Sadly, you’re right. People aren’t going to learn about porn from that notebook cover, although you overestimate the age at which people are first exposed to porn. Research is revealing that over 50% of nine year olds have been exposed to porn online. It’s damaging and destructive, and if you are interested, you can read a little more about that here: https://breadandjustice.com/2011/05/27/porns-not-bad/
      You’re also right that it’s a fact of life that it exists, however the fact that something exists doesn’t mean we should either ignore it, accept it or endorse it, particularly if it’s counter-productive to a healthy society.
      Your perspective isn’t a universally male view, as I’ve spoken to many men who don’t share this perspective (some of who have commented here), so I’ll take it as your personal point of view, rather than a male one.
      Thanks for commenting.

  6. I agree with you Ruth, the central issue isn’t just about protecting our children, although that is highly important, its about protecting our humanity. Such messages dehumanize both men and women. To depict women in such a manner is disgusting, degrading and simply wrong!! It strips women of the ‘humanity’ as real people with a heart and soul a, history and a future and presents them as objects.
    However it also degrading to men – the fact that Typo assume men to be ‘sex hungry chauvanistic pigs’ is also disgusting. This also strips men of their humanity, suggesting that men do not have any reason, feeling, emotion or sense of compassion and morality outside of their sex drive – what are we? Animals?
    This is totally off and I am disgusted!!!

  7. I see two problems with the article. First, I find it somewhat curious, if not baffling, how this discussion does not include broader social relations. Its times like these I wish Karl Marx were alive. How can a topic pertaining to profit, pornography or any commodity for that matter, not include a discussion relating to the the ‘fetishization’ of commodities (which is not consumerism nor ‘corporatism’) and the ‘objectivization’ of social relations? It should be noted, there exists a plethora of academic journals which highlight the ‘cult of money’ with the objectivisation of social relations.

    The second problem I see with the article is certainly not Marxist but in some regards, Hegelian (in the political philosophical sense). If you’re an Aussie, you vote in federal elections because the state says so, thus you partake in, and legitimize, not only the democratic process but the liberal ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité (less so fraternity, I’m sorry, I’m ‘French’ as if nationalistic identities mean anything). As Charles Taylor, and in some respect John Rawls notes, contemporary society has to come to an ‘acceptable consensus’ on issues such as this of which may not seem ‘right’ in any moral sense but ultimately sustain the institutional, political and philosophical framework of which we partake in everyday (to relate to the article in hand, courts, across all liberal democratic states, have deemed that pornography is accepted under the guise of liberté, and a subsequent consensus is produced. IE. I don’t see the masses ‘storming the bastille’ due to pornography laws, or the lack of).

    Thus, a duality is produced. In simpler terms, there is this inherent problem of social relations but the relations are largely dismissed under the guise of liberal values. While I disagree with Marx on many points (IE. his criticism of Hegel, his materialist conception of history), I think he’s quite correct on two points. First, in tackling the heart of the problem (in regards to social relations). Second, in recognizing that what is inherently wrong in regards to social relations can only be corrected with extreme change.

    Thanks for the post. I haven’t been able to discuss such an issue for a few months, since I’ve graduated at least =).

    1. I’m glad I could give you an opportunity to discuss your favourite philosophical underpinnings 😉

      I’ll just make one comment, which is that I don’t agree with the idea that only extreme change can correct situations. I think of one of my heroes – William Wilberforce – who changed deplorable legislation through a persistent campaign, taking over 30 years to see the change he desired.

      Thanks for the comment though.

  8. I will not be buying their products .. Bit sad really as a mother of 7, I shopped there on a regular bases. But I can not support something that is so demeaning of women , I have daughters, who I want treated with respect . Also to say porn is harmless ask any police officer who works in child sex crimes and they will tell you how many files are on their desk and dramatically they have increased since porn has become so widely available on the Internet ..people need to stop ignoring what’s really going on and look at the impact it has on our society.

  9. Whilst working in a cotton on store i had many comment on the baby suits that had slogans that would shame the normal parent. When DOCS workers complained to me i took it further and was told that ” they love the contoversy, it’s good for the company”. End of story.Money is king.

  10. I totally agree. Absolutely outraged!
    I complained this week to Westfield that have advertisement poster boards around their mall with the biggest looser coach COMPLETELY NUDE. Plus a cocoa cola ad that had a hot and steamy passionate kiss for their advertisement.
    Their response was that they didn’t manage those…. My feedback was forwarded on.

    It is shocking to see how sex is shoved into kids faces especially in general areas that should be rated G! My 3year old son even copied the snoggy kiss from the poster which disturbed me and I had alot of explaining to do about that. That I shouldn’t have had to!

  11. What can I do to help stop the spread of porn that is showing up everywhere?????
    It is disgraceful and disgusting. It is so far beyond the point to say that if you don’t like it not to buy it because it is in our faces wether we want to buy it or not. I have spoken to people who unfortunately were exposed to porn at a young age (though any age is terrible) who have said that it just stays with you and you can never really get those images out of your head. I know life isn’t fair etc but really who is benefitting from this exposure. I believe porn makes people feel inadequate and low. Shame on anyone stocking products such as these. I walked out of a typo store when i saw a mug with OMG…. don’t even get me started on that one!

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